Sometimes, the depression I have over the winter slowly fades away with each sunny day. Sometimes, it disappears suddenly and all of that energy I was lacking over the last two months appears. All at once. And I spend all of my free time over four days creating a large painting of flowers.
Most of my free time is working on my writing, a process that becomes more and more agonizing the more I try to push myself to be better. There are days that the joy of creating the story is lost in the labor of perfecting the words.
That’s when I find myself reaching for some other creative outlet. Of course I like to draw and paint, but even then I can still feel myself become too attached to what I’m doing, worrying about if it’s going to look right and if I’m going to make a mistake.
So, this summer I rekindled my love for sidewalk chalk.
I’ve found there is something wonderful about a brand new container of chalk and my clean black driveway. Whether I make something beautiful or not, I don’t get to keep it. It’s gone with the next rainfall. If the kids want to come over and help me with what I’m doing, it’s fine. In fact, it’s encouraged. If they want to ride their scooters through it or shoot it with water guns. They can. The end result doesn’t matter, only the process of creating.
I’ve gone through buckets of chalk and I think the neighbors must think I’ve lost my mind.
I’ve come to love writing the first draft of a book. It’s the sprint through the letters and the words, a pulling together of paragraphs and pages to get to the end. You’re not required to make every word perfect. You aren’t required to patch up any plot holes. It’s no big deal if your characters need a little work or your dialogue is stilted. All of those things are merely a blur as you rush past.
I’ve written about it before, about how I can’t look for perfection here. If I do, I won’t finish. I’ll be on the first page, agonizing over the first few words.
There’s also the discovery in the first draft. There are two types of writers, the pantser and the plotter. I’ve tried to be a plotter. I’ve tried to outline everything, make notecards, make a detailed map of where my story is going to go from start to finish, but it never works. I feel sort of suffocated by my plans. No, I like to have a couple of characters, a problem that they have and a vague idea of where I want them to end up. It’s a crazy sort of thing, writing something, not always sure how I’m going to get from one space to the next. It can be stressful, but man, it’s fun.
Now, it’s time to pay the piper. I imagine plotters usually have a better handle on what it happening in their books. They’ve done a lot of the hard work up front. I would imagine that at the end of their first draft, they have a pretty tight story. Pantsers have to make up for their fanciful dance through their story, with big changes in the next draft. I’m like the grasshopper that played all summer long and is now facing an uncomfortable winter.
So, onto the next drafts and the edits that come with it.
This doesn’t feel like playing anymore. This feels like work. I’m reading through paragraphs and it all feels clunky and disjointed and a mess. Maybe, the structure of it is good, but I’m going to have to really make the writing better. So, I make notes. I highlight the rough sentences. I think this is just like painting. I’ve roughed in the large swathes of color and now it’s time to really get in with the detail.
Pen is up.
I know how to work past the paralysis of the first draft. I know how to just zip right along and not take myself too seriously. That time is over. Now, I really do have to do my best to make it perfect. Perfect is paralysis. How do I find the right words? Do I take this out? Should I add this in? Am I taking a piece of writing that had life and spark and movement and am I with every pen stroke murdering it? Am I turning my writing into wood?
It’s just as easy to doubt myself now as it was before. Maybe it’s worse. Now, it’s not just a case of not being able to do something well. It’s about ruining something that might have been good. This may be a little dramatic but it’s like dismantling a bomb and not knowing which wire to cut. Okay, no, that really is too dramatic. Actually, it is just like trying to find your way without a map. You hope that you’re going the right way and you’re using the little you know to orient yourself, but until you get there, you can’t really be sure that you’re heading in the right direction. I don’t have an answer for this. If you’re reading this and you do have the answer, I hope you’ll tell me. I think it must just all be about experience. As I become a more experienced writer, I hope that it will become easier. Of course, something tells me that there will always be space for doubt here, no matter how long I’ve been writing.
I’m just going to keep moving forward. It is the only advice I can give myself and anyone reading this who might find themselves in this place with me. Keep working. Keep moving forward. Let’s hope we’re not lost.
I hate the word depression. I would rather use any other word than depression. I usually say that I am blue. Sometimes, I say that I’m sad.
I’m blue right now. God, I hate admitting that. It feels like a terrible weakness, a part of me that I don’t have any control over and that I can’t just fight through. I can’t make myself feel happy. In fact, I’m having a difficult time making myself feel anything at all.
It’s something that happens this time of year. Usually, it occurs in January and February. This year it has arrived a little earlier. It always coincides with the short days and the long, dark nights of winter. I’ve never been diagnosed with depression but if I was going to self-diagnose I would guess that I have seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
SAD is characterized by a change in mood that occurs with the changing of the season. It’s characterized by irritability, and low energy. It’s tied to melatonin and serotonin levels and if I had the energy I would look up what that is, what it does and what it means. But I don’t. You have the internet. You look it up.
At any rate, it’s a miserable feeling.
It happens to some degree every year and yet every time it happens, I am surprised. You think I would remember. You think I would recognize the signs. I fight it as long as I can. I think to myself that I just need to soldier through it. I just have to keep working. I’m a big believer in the most important part of getting good at something is showing up and doing it. But, when I sit at the kitchen table, it’s so much harder to find the words. I can sit for hours and not get anywhere. It would have been better if I had just sat on the couch and binged on some Netflix.
Maybe I’m just paying for my frenetic, nearly manic productivity of the summer. It’s the summer when I am busy every moment of the day. I work in the garden. I take my kids places. I pick baskets of fruit in sweltering orchards and take them home to preserve them. I write thousands of words every week. I paint. I feel invincible. I feel powerful, even limitless. I marvel to myself at my work ethic, at my drive, at my ability to accomplish everything I set out to do.
Basically, I’m the little engine that could. All summer I coast down the hills, happily zipping along. Then fall hits, and I have to start chugging up the next hill and by winter I’m basically ready to give out. What was once a feeling of being able to do anything becomes a feeble, “I think I can.” And sometimes it just becomes a sad, little, “I can’t.”
It happened last year, towards the end of December. The book I was working on completely fell apart and by January I had trashed it. The book I’m working on now is a mess. I don’t think I’ll trash it, but I have a strong desire to put it away unfinished for a while.
I don’t know what’s worse about this inevitable slowdown. Is it the sharp decline of productivity or is it the terrible feeling that it’s never going to rise again? All of the habits that I formed will just erode away until I am once more weeks away from the last time I wrote anything or painted anything. This past year, I eventually found my way again but what if next time I don’t?
So, this year, I’m going to do my best not to give out, to keep that creative engine going. It doesn’t matter if I’m not producing the same quantity or even quality as I was before. The important thing is to continue moving forward. I’m adjusting my goals, giving myself a little more downtime. I’m allowing for an afternoon nap now and then, an early bedtime, a ridiculous novel read only for the escapism it provides. I may write less and paint more. I may go for walks or just listen to music. Maybe, I’ll bake bread. On days when I feel more like myself, I’ll work harder. I’ll keep moving.
When the sun is brighter and warmer and the manic productivity of summer returns, I hope I’ll be ready.